NEW YORK — If you’re ever tempted to offer playwright Theresa Rebeck an idea for a new play, maybe hold off. She has quite enough of those as it is.
“A play is like a license to explore things that my curiosity is really piqued by. I have a lot of curiosity,” she says. “I have a lot of things on my mind and a lot of curiosity.”
This fall, New York City has become Rebeck’s playwriting playground. She’s directing her own work “Dig” at 59E59 Theaters, and her “I Need That” has landed on Broadway starring Danny DeVito and his daughter Lucy.
“I Need That” is Rebeck’s 21st professional production in New York and her fifth on Broadway, making her easily the most-produced female playwright of her generation on Broadway.
“A friend of mine said to me one time, ‘Well, there’s no question the muse is with you.’ And I thought, ‘That’s an interesting way to put it,’” says Rebeck, laughing.
“Dig” opened just before rehearsals began in earnest for “I Need That” a dozen blocks away, and Rebeck was shuttling between the two shows.
Fate brought these two plays together, a combination of the pandemic and waiting for stages to open. Both plays, at their heart, explore the fraught relationships between fathers and daughters. There’s even a moment in “I Need That” when two of the three characters talk about gardening, an obvious theme of “Dig.”
“The productions overlapped in a way that was startling,” says Rebeck.
“Somebody asked me at one point what I was trying to say about father-daughter relationships. And I was like, ‘Actually, nothing.’ They were not meant to be presented as a block. I don’t mind that they are. But I wrote them seven years apart.”
Rebeck’s plays often contain mysteries — stolen money, a secret stamp collection, an inheritance, a personal lie — as well as fast, funny and profane dialogue. She wants there to “be blood on the floor. I want it to be a visceral experience.”
“There’s always a sort of muscularity to the storytelling,” she says. “More and more I’m overlapping comedy with tragedy, but most of my plays are comedies. And I think there’s also a sound to the language that is recognizable.”
Rebeck, who created the backstage Broadway TV soap opera “Smash” for NBC, is the kind of playwright who writes for actors, and she was in her element giving notes to the cast of “Dig” before a recent performance.
She congratulated one actor for finding her way through a scene, another for her “pure” approach. She applauded a third for his decision to tuck in his shirt onstage, which created peals of laughter. She suggested to another that she let a scene hang — “Give it a little air.”
“That’s it, mostly. I felt strongly that the whole week was, to my mind a triumph,” she told the group. “It’s a big lift this play, and there’s an emotional availability that everyone has to provide and you guys are wonderful, just great.”
“Dig,” set in a dying plant store in a dying urban neighborhood, made its premiere in 2019 at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont. But Rebeck is not averse to tweaking her script right up until opening night in New York.
When Megan, the neighborhood screw-up, mocks the shop owner’s passivity with a customer, the line was: “Wow. Put your heart into it. Get behind it. Sell those plants.” Rebeck had initially used “flowers” instead of “plants,” but changed it back after “flowers” triggered laughter.
“Flowers is better,” she says after the note session. “It’s great not to be precious about your stuff, to just go, ’OK, I was wrong about that. Do it this other way.’ I have no idea why ‘flowers’ is a funnier word.”
Her previous Broadway works include “Dead Accounts” starring Katie Holmes, “Bernhardt/Hamlet” with Janet McTeer, “Seminar” with Alan Rickman, and “Mauritius” with F. Murray Abraham and Bobby Cannavale.
Other highlights include her dark comedy “Mad House” starring David Harbour and Bill Pullman last year in London’s West End, and her play “Downstairs,” starring Tim Daly and Tyne Daly, premiering off-Broadway in 2018. Her play “Omnium Gatherum” was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Rebeck says her writing respects the audience, with dialogue and characters hoping to engage immediately with the folks in the seats.
“It’s inviting to an audience. It’s not something that says to the audience, ‘This is what we’re doing here. You come to us.’ I don’t do that,” she says.
Another hallmark of a Rebeck play it that while it may go into darkness, there is always a light.
“There’s a lot of nihilism going on right now,” she says. “I understand, obviously, why it’s become prevalent, but it’s not what I do.”
She marinates in ideas. “I Need That,” which is about a father who is a hoarder and his daughter trying to save him, was partly triggered by her own experience moving her aging parents and by her thoughts on clutter.
“I’ve been puzzling through issues of how people relate to their stuff — why it’s so easy for some people to keep a handle on it and other people not so much,” she says. “And that overlapped with what I was facing with my brothers and sisters in terms of my parents.”
As you might expect, Rebeck has more work on the horizon — plenty of rewrites and updates on plays already gestating, and a new musical she is birthing with Cyndi Lauper.
Though Rebeck is well-versed in TV — writing for such shows as “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “NYPD Blue” — she considers herself a playwright first and wants to see more plays produced.
“I’m always like, ‘Why are they always developing musicals?’ It costs a fortune. It doesn’t cost a fortune to develop a straight play, and people like them,” she says. “I think it’s important for people to be doing straight plays on Broadway.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits